LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Selectman Rebuts Statements Made by Finance Committee Member on Stormwater Management Fee

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Recent public communications from Dennis Galvin, as a member of the Finance Committee, contained misleading and false statements about Westford’s new Stormwater Utility Fee. As Chair of the Board of Selectmen, I am concerned that this is damaging to our Town Meeting process so I am providing the following points for voters to consider.

False claims are in bold with correct information in italics.

  1. The Board of Selectmen does not have the authority to initiate the fee – MGL Chapter 83 Section 16 gives Board of Selectmen the authority to initiate utility fees, such as water, sewer, and stormwater. This has been confirmed by John Giorgio, Town Counsel.
  2. Emerson Test – This fee legally meets the Emerson Test. Please see communication from John Giorgio, Town Counsel, in the Finance Committee Packet from Aug. 26, 2019.
  3. If the fee is found to be illegal, we could be required to return all payments – Please see John Giorgio, Town Counsel’s opinion at the Board of Selectmen meeting on Aug. 27 where he said that he felt there is ample case law to justify the fee and that the enabling legislation seems clear to him. He went on to say that it is possible a court case could rule the fee invalid, but it would be an extraordinary remedy for the court to require all the fees returned and many factors go into these decisions as well as time for appeals etc.
  4. Excessive Credits will hinder the Stormwater program – Credits are expected to be no more than 5 to 7 percent and have been factored into the revenue projections
  5. Excessive Deferrals will hinder the Stormwater program – We will eventually collect this revenue when the homeowner sells. We know it is a limited group of potential beneficiaries due to age and income restrictions.
  6. $600K will be freed up in the budget – Approximately $600K will continue to be funded out of the General Fund; not absorbed for other purposes. $1 million is new money, to be raised by a fee.
  7. This is a backdoor override An override  increases the total amount of taxes the town levies on residents. An override can: 1. Be used for any purpose in the general fund; 2. Amount over what is spent goes into ‘Free Cash’ and must be appropriated back to Stormwater at a future town meeting; 3. An override increases by 2 ½ percent a year, without an underride [reduction of taxes] in the future.
  8. Impact to Nonprofits – The selectmen recognize this impact and have delayed the fee for one year for nonprofits. As a utility fee, it must be applied uniformly to all properties that contribute to the problem.
  9. A fee will negatively impact the school budget – The town will contribute to the stormwater fund for all town-owned buildings, schools, library, senior center, town hall, etc. The total per year will be approximately $90K. This amount is less than if we fund the entire $1 million out of our current budget.
  10. Fee is set by the EPA The fee is set by the Board of Selectmen. The Environmental Protection Agency administers the requirements for our MS4 permit and then it is up to the community to establish a path of compliance. We have done this by creating a Stormwater Master Plan that outlines the necessary work for years to come. The uncertainty is what the next permit will require. What we have seen since 2003 is that each permit, updated every five years, becomes more demanding in terms of what we must to do to improve the quality of our waterways and drinking water. [ Editor’s note: The MS4 permit authorizes communities to discharge their stormwater through the sewer system to the U.S. waters.]
  11. The only way voters will know about an increase to the fee will be when they receive their bill. The selectmen have committed to keeping the fee level for the first three years. Any future increase to the fee will be considered and voted on at public Board of Selectmen meetings where the public can attend the meeting and speak. The fee will be directly connected to the funding approved for the Enterprise Fund. To give you an example of the public review of the current plan, the current fee was set after 12 months of public meetings on this topic.

The Board of Selectmen is elected by our residents as our town’s executive branch, and therefore is charged with setting policy for our town.  The board believes that instituting a Stormwater Fee is the fairest, most appropriate method of funding the EPA required stormwater needs in our town. We believe we are acting in the best interests of our residents.

A comprehensive explanation of the Stormwater issue, the Board of Selectmen’s decision process, and the approved fee is available in this video to be shown at Town Meeting. We hope to see all registered voters at special Town Meeting on Oct. 28, 7 p.m., at the Abbot School Gymnasium. — Elizabeth Almeida, Chair, Board of Selectmen